Through the Eye of an ACTUAL Needle: The Fake Gate Theory

Matthew 19: 23-24 famously reads:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

There are two popular interpretations for the phrase “eye of a needle.” The first theory is that it is a reference to the tiny hole at the top of a sewing needle. Simple enough. The second theory is that it is a reference to a gate with the name “the eye of the needle” that was in first century Jerusalem. The gate was so small that anyone that hoped to get a camel through would have to take all of their baggage off the camel, get it down to its knees, and kind of shimmy the camel through the tiny opening.

You can see why this is important for Bible readers. Either Jesus is saying that it is impossible for a rich man to get into Heaven, or he’s saying that it’s really challenging for a rich man to get into heaven. There’s a big difference between impossible and barely possible. So which is it? Is it hard or impossible? What is the eye of the needle?

After a little research, I wasn’t able to find a trustworthy modern commentary that genuinely advocated for the gate theory. In varying detail, they all disproved it with archaeology, translations from the Greek, interpretive history, and the plain sense of the story. That being said, I didn’t find a single place that really poured out all of the evidence for the reader’s consideration (especially when it came to the history of interpretation). So here we go! This is my attempt to round up all of that evidence and hand it over to you.

The archaeological evidence for the gate theory is pretty poor. There’s no legitimate evidence of a gate known as the “eye of the needle” gate existing in Jesus’ lifetime. I would cite something, but you can’t cite evidence proving a lack of evidence! A quick google search reveals that even modern claims about eye of the needle gates in Jerusalem are dubious at best. There’s one small Orthodox church that claims that they have the actual gate that Jesus was referring to (which looks suspiciously like a hole in an old wall). There’s also a handful of travel blogs from people that claim they went to the eye of the needle gate. None of these claims are citation-worthy. Church websites often make dubious claims (see my article about fake quotes from famous saints for more church website sins) and the travel blogs pictures feature people smiling by a variety of totally different “eye of the needle” gates. Were there gates in different times and locations referred to as eye of the needle gates? Yes. There’s gates like that in German castles from the Middle Ages and obviously a handful in Jerusalem today that claim to be eye of the needle gates. That being said, there’s no record of a gate being referred to by that title until after the year 1000. In first century Jerusalem, there is absolutely no evidence that such a gate existed. Strike one.

The Greek manuscript makes the gate theory even less viable. If the “eye of a needle” was the name of a specific gate or a reference to a type of gate, that would make the language a title. You’d have to use the same words, “eye of the needle,” every time you talked about it because you’re not actually talking about eyes and needles; you’re talking about a type of gate known as an eye of the needle gate. The story comes up three times in the Gospels (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18) and each author uses slightly different words for this phrase. Matthew calls the eye of a needle the “trypēmatos rhaphidos” (τρυπήματος ‘ῥαφίδος), while Mark calls it the “trymalias tēs rhaphidos” (τρυμαλιᾶς τῆς ‘ῥαφίδος). Both are using the same word for needle (referring specifically to a tailor’s needle), but they’re using different language to talk about the eye of that needle. Luke not only adds a third option for the eye, but uses the word for a surgeon’s needle rather than the word for a tailor’s needle: trēmatos belonēs (τρήματος βελόνης ). If they’re trying to use a title for a specific kind of gate, they’re all over the map! Two of the three of them are using the wrong words to refer to that gate. If, on the other hand, they’re talking about needles and the tiny holes in them, the differences in their accounts present no problem. Strike two.

Now to the history of interpretation. Most commentaries I looked at claimed that the gate theory was a legend from the Middle Ages, but there wasn’t much detail provided beyond that. I saw a lot of people throw around dates like the 9th century (maybe), the 15th century (definitely wrong), and the 19th century (right out), but few provided direct quotes from their sources, much less cited sources at all.

The oldest reference I could find that’s absolutely airtight comes from Thomas Aquinas’ megacommentary, Catena Aurea. It packed great quotes from multiple noteworthy church fathers into one convenient commentary. In the section on Matthew 19, he provides the following commentary from Anselm of Canturbury:

It is explained otherwise; That at Jerusalem there was a certain gate, called, The needle’s eye, through which a camel could not pass, but on its bended knees, and after its burden had been taken off; and so the rich should not be able to pass along the narrow way that leads to life, till he had put off the burden of sin, and of riches, that is, ceasing to love them.

Anselm of Canterbury as cited in Catena Aurea, Thomas Aquinas, CCEL Edition.

I can’t find a primary source from Anselm on this one, nor can I find anyone else who was able to track one down, so we’ll just have to take Thomas’s word for it. Anselm wrote in the early 12th century, so there’s definitely an uncomfortable gap here. Sources legitimately interested in uncovering the source of the theory often quote this as the its first official appearance, and I have to agree. I can’t find an earlier source than Thomas quoting Anselm. Did Anselm say it? Probably. Did he get it from someone else? I have to imagine he did. Someone that spent most of his life in England seems an unlikely candidate to start spouting off about gates in Jerusalem.

There are some people that point to an eastern bishop from the 11th century named Theophylact as the actual originator of the gate theory. If he did, it’s bizarre that he didn’t write it down anywhere and actively contradicted himself in writing. Here’s what he says on the matter in his commentary on Matthew:

As long as a man is rich and he has in excess while others do not have even the necessities, he can in no way enter the kingdom of heaven. But when all riches have been shed, then he is not rich and so he can enter. For it is just as impossible for a man with wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. See how Christ first said it was difficult to enter, but here that it is completely impossible. 

Theophylact’s Commentary on Matthew, Ch. 19, trans. Christopher Stade.

You can hear where he gets a little close: “when all riches has been shed, then he is not rich and so he can enter…” If there was a tiny gate where you had to get all of your gear off your camel and shimmy it through, the process might be something like that. But note that he still definitively says that it is impossible for a rich man to enter. Theophylact is describing the process of a rich person becoming poor, not talking about unpacking your camel for the sake of a narrow gate. Just to cover our bases, let’s see what he says about the same story in Mark 10:

Understand ‘hard’ here to mean ‘impossible’. For it is impossible for the rich man to be saved. This is clear from the example which the Lord gives, saying, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’ For it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Theophylact’s Commentary on Mark Ch. 10, trans. Christopher Stade.

Yeah, this guy is absolutely not the originator of the gate theory. Some people just misread his commentary on Matthew. This is why primary sources are so critical: because people don’t always say what others claim they did.

There are a number of proto-claims that come way closer to the gate theory than Theophylact did. For example, check out this commentary from Jerome (a Roman theologian from the 4th century):

By this saying it is shown to be not difficult but impossible. For if, in the same way that a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle, so a rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, then no rich man will be saved. But if we read Isaiah, how camels of Midian and Ephah come to Jerusalem with gifts and offerings, and those that were previously bent and distorted by the depravity of vices entered the gates of Jerusalem, we will see how even these camels to which the rich are compared, when they have laid aside their heavy burden of sins and the crookedness of their whole body, they can enter through the narrow and strait road that leads to life.

Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew, trans. Scheck, 220-221.

Like Theolphylact, Jerome EXPLICITLY says that it is impossible. Buuuut there is that passage in Isaiah (60:6) where camels with loads of fancy gifts and people who were bent and distorted get into Jerusalem. Sooo maybe rich people can get in too if they lay aside their riches and vices? A bit of a comforting stretch for a passage saying that something is impossible. In his commentary, John Broadus goes so far as to suggest that Anselm got the idea from a misreading of Jerome’s fanciful explanation. A bit of a stretch, I think, but the connection between proto-claims like this and the gate theory are definitely real.

There’s a definite instinct in the history of this passage to try to soften the blow. Whether the eye of the needle is made a gate, the camel is made a rope (a suggested mistranslation that’s just not viable, as you can tell from the simple fact that no reputable Bible translates it that way), or the reading of the story is followed up with long statements about how being rich is actually fine if you manage to resist the allure of your riches (Clement of Alexandria among others), there are a lot of people that want this to be a little easier to swallow. Which is surprising, because all of this evidence pales in comparison with the words of Jesus in the following verses (Matt 19: 25-26):

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Jesus literally says that the point of bringing up the whole camel and needle thing in the first place was to say that it is impossible. He’s intentionally using an absurd image to talk about something that can’t happen! If his words aren’t enough to put the final nail in the coffin of the gate theory, I don’t know what would be.

The Historic Challenge of Christian Parenting

I just ran across this quote from the famous 4th century Christian preacher, John Chrysostom:

We spare neither labors nor means in order to teach our children secular sciences, so that they can serve well the earthly authorities. Only the knowledge of the holy Faith, the service of the Heavenly King are a matter of indifference to us. We allow them to attend spectacles but we care little whether they go to Church and stand within it reverently. We demand an account from them of what they learned in their secular institutes—why do we not demand an account from them of what they heard in the Lord’s house? 

as cited by Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation, trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose, 331

It was kind of a shock to read! Here’s a man in our heralded Christian past, preaching in an era which I all too readily assume was full of devotion and piety, and he’s addressing the same thing that we face today: parents often care more about secular education than they do the Christian faith. After all, life is long! A child has a whole lifetime to think about God. The window for getting into a good school? That’s approaching fast. So should their child attend church or piano lessons? Wake up early on Sunday for an entry-level job, or head over to worship? The piano lessons and job look better on a college application than anything the Church has to offer. A good application means a good school. A good school means a good job. A good job means a stable income and a higher chance of job satisfaction. Job satisfaction means a higher chance of being happy! And what more could a person ask for than a happy child? Conversion can happen anytime; the road to happiness is happening now. Children need to get on or get left behind.

It’s easy to suggest that this is a phenomenon that only really effects nominal Christians that attend church on Christmas and Easter, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Even the great Augustine of Hippo, bishop and theologian extraordinaire, had parents that prioritized his academic education before his faith journey. When he took a concubine (or started living with his girlfriend, to try to translate a weird ancient idea into a modern one), his Christian mom was surprisingly calm about the whole thing. If anything, she was glad they weren’t getting married:

The reason why she showed no such concern was that she was afraid that the hope she placed in me could be impeded by a wife. This was not the hope which my mother placed in you for the life to come, but the hope which my parents entertained for my career that I might do well out of the study of literature. Both of them, as I realized, were very ambitious for me: my father because he hardly gave a thought to you at all, and his ambitions for me were concerned with mere vanities; my mother because she thought it would do no harm and would be a help to set me on the way towards you, if I studied the traditional pattern of a literary education. That at least is my conjecture as I try to recall the characters of my parents.

Augustine, Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 27

In Confessions, Augustine almost NEVER says anything bad about his momma. She is the shining pinnacle of saintliness that follows him around, praying for his conversion and hoping that her son might know God! But even SHE buys in to the theory that he needs to put his studies first while he’s young and then maybe someday he can convert when he’s nice and settled. This isn’t just a thought pattern for nominal Christians; this is a pervasive way of thinking for a lot of Christian parents.

Andrew Root talks extensively about this in his book, The End of Youth Ministry. He suggests that each society has a different vision of what a parent is supposed to be. Obviously, a good parent produces happy children. That tends to be universal. But what does it mean to be happy? Is happiness luxury? Elevated social standing? Religious identity? What does the culture say that happiness is? Because regardless of whether or not you personally affirm it, you’re going to find yourself influenced by it:

It would be super weird for even me (the theologian and husband of a pastor) to say [to my next-door neighbor], “Yes, [my children are] doing very good. Owen fasted all week and saw two visions. And Maisy felt the deep conviction of the Holy Spirit and has entered a time of confession and penance. She wore our family hair shirt to school today. It made gym class difficult, but that’s the point: doing penance for sin isn’t easy!” There was a time in history when this might have been exactly how a person would respond. But not today. The moral imagination has changed, and if I did respond like this, even a churchgoing neighbor would make all sorts of moral interpretations about me… My neighbor might even call social services, assuming that I’m some crazy religious freak, because my sense of the good feels wrong to her. And what would give her the moral high ground is her assumption that my poor kids are being kept from living a full life.

Andrew Root, The End of Youth Ministry, p. 25

So what is good parenting today? What is that thing that our society strives to achieve? For people in the eras of Augustine and Chrysostom, it was clearly tied to an increase in wealth and standing. Are things so different today? Not to suggest that the core of all goodness is located in a person’s pocketbook, but we clearly assume that more money will lead to better opportunities for happiness. Augustine’s parents got all kinds of admiration for saving up and sending him off to a top-notch school! That made them good parents in the eyes of the world. Good parents just like that were being lectured by Chrysostom: don’t let material success take priority over faith, regardless of how good it makes you look in the eyes of the world. If we want to avoid being good parents and be godly parents, it’s going to be a challenge that we can’t embark on alone.

I have no kids. It’s easy for me to say that Christians need to find ways to push back against the presiding social imaginary and put faith first when raising children. That being said, I’m still a church member. I’m responsible for helping raise children within my church community, and I’m responsible for supporting their parents. I hope I can can help them on that difficult journey, and I hope I can find a community to help me when that time comes. Raising children faithfully been a challenge for thousands of years, and the lure of defining parenting by the measure of secular success isn’t going away anytime soon.

Augustine and Sex

I just finished taking a class where the professor warned us about writing about Augustine and sex on blogs. Apparently it tends to attract people who have STRONG OPINIONS! But telling me not to do something is practically encouraging me to do it, so here we go. And since opinions in the modern era regarding bodies and sex are hot-button issues, give this one a sympathetic read, assuming that there’s no secret agenda. It’s just an adventure in one fifth-century theologian’s thought processes.

The look on his face says it all.

It’s easy to point out that Augustine has VERY different opinions on sex than the average modern person. And I don’t just mean that he’s a little conservative for modern taste; he’s way out there in uncharted territory. He’s pretty negative about sex, regardless of the context. I mean, one of the subchapters in City of God is literally titled, “the sense of shame in sexual intercourse.” I don’t know that anyone today really thinks, “Yeah, it’s normal to be a little ashamed during sex. Nothing weird there”. But rather than take the opportunity to discuss how his thoughts are bad (which I’m sure has been done a million times before), I want to look at the insights that he can give a modern reader. Augustine’s odd insights can remind us that our bodies are not as purely neutral or good as we moderns often imagine them to be. Bodies are tainted by sin in this life, just like everything else, and they won’t fully align with our saintly ambitions until the end of time.

In the circles I study in, it’s safe to say that bodies are normally thought of as highly positive elements of our being. People emphasize the line in the Apostle’s Creed “the resurrection of the dead,” they talk about the body’s role in our current and future being, and carefully choose language intended to destigmatize bodily aspects of existence like sex and disability. And, of course, none of that is bad. Nobody that I know wants to live in a society where the disabled are stigmatized and sex feels like a sin. But the methodology that’s used tends to make the core assumption that bodies are de-facto good. They’re extensions of our own being, complete with natural and good inclinations that we ought to listen to if we want to be happy. If our body is not as we would like it to be (regarding appearance, food intake, sex, ability, or any other number of factors) we need to accept it as differently good, rather than problematic.

The problems begin when we have Jesus saying things like “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). Lust is one of those bodily emotions that we just sort of… feel. We don’t choose to lust; it just happens. What do we do about that? On one hand, we have groups that have normalized sexual expression whenever a person feels lustful. It’s almost viewed as a form of hunger. If you’re hungry, you eat. If you’re lustful, you have sex. Many of the wellness systems that I’ve seen encouraged in colleges list sexual expression as a basic need for wellness. Lust is portrayed as one more positive emotion that helps us regulate our bodily well being. This, of course, simply assumes that Jesus was wrong. Another common understanding is that there is a big difference between thought and action. To think a lustful thought isn’t ideal, but it’s not as bad as actually acting on it. True though this may be, it’s not the high bar that Jesus presented. He didn’t say that a few lustful thoughts were well within the boundaries of reason. He said to knock it off completely.

This is where we can start to understand Augustine’s perspective. What makes sex so troublesome to him? It’s attached to these bodily emotions that are almost impossible to control. It’s not the only activity capable of arousing these sorts of passions, but it’s certainly one of the most prominent.  Despite our most careful attempts to cultivate virtue, we’re always subject to bodily lust. In City of God he writes:

There are lusts for many things, and yet when lust is mentioned without the specification of its object the only thing that normally occurs to the mind is the lust that excites the indecent parts of the body. This lust assumes power not only over the whole body, and not only from the outside, but also internally; it disturbs the whole man, when the mental emotion combines and mingles with the physical craving, resulting in a pleasure surpassing all physical delights. So intense is the pleasure that when it reaches its climax there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness; the intellectual sentries, as it were, are overwhelmed.

City of God, Book XIV, 16

Here, we see lust portrayed as this sin that’s rooted in our body, capable of completely drowning out our own free will.  It can stop us from being the saints that we want to be and drag us towards sins that our minds would never choose for us.  This isn’t a battle that can be corrected either.  Until we receive new bodies/restored bodies in the resurrection, we’re stuck fighting our own lust. Our bodies are affected by the fallenness of the world, and lust is a sin that’s etched into them for the duration of our time on Earth. The gift of sexuality that God gave us is always muddied by the unavoidable, uncontrollable presence of lust.

But the fullness of Augustine’s concerns with sex are a little deeper than that.  The ancient era was dominated by the thoughts of Plato, who warned people not to focus on things in this world, but to focus on the things beyond this world.  For Christian Platonists, the world below was something that should draw our attention to our God above.  If we get bogged down in focusing on earthly things because of their own beauty, we’ll miss the greater beauty that they’re pointing to. The Bible has passages that these ancient, Plato-influenced readers would have focused on to a far greater degree than we do, such as Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.”  That’s why we have bishops like Augustine creating whole theological systems that encourage people to put their whole heart and mind on God, regardless of what they’re doing. He says that things in this world are here for us to use, while the God beyond this world is there to be enjoyed:

To enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. To use, on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain what one desires, if it is a proper object of desire; for an unlawful use ought rather to be called an abuse.

De Doctrina, Ch 4

A good Christian only uses the things in this world. We use our tools. We use our modes of transportation. We use our friends. We use everything to seek God, in whom we rest. And yes, “use” is a word that hasn’t aged well to talk about people, but hopefully you can see what he’s trying to do here. He’s not suggesting we use them in a way that is disrespectful or abusive. He’s suggesting that they’re here to help us seek God and enjoy him. That’s why all of us are here: to point to God.

You can see why all of that would make lust extra concerning.  Someone experiencing lust is probably not thinking much about God.  Their faculties are overwhelmed with the pleasure of an earthly thing, and they’re not giving much thought to heavenly things.  In that light, lust is something that is continually pulling us away from heaven, down into the dust from which we were made.  It’s a way to enjoy something for its own sake, rather than to enjoy God through it.

To Augustine, not only is lust something that’s bodily and uncontrollable, but it’s pulling our minds away from God and down towards things that can never fulfill us. That’s why it’s so worthy of concern.

 In an era where assumptions about bodies and sex have changed so vastly, what do we have to gain from reading Augustine’s thoughts about sex?  A reminder that our bodies are not purely reliable entities.  They’re tainted by sin, just like everything else.  Rather than always differing to the wants of our bodies (sexual or otherwise), we can remember that there’s something beyond all of this that demands our loyalty.  That’s where real enjoyment is.

Gregory of Nazianzus: An Unhappy Faith

In the Western church, there’s a prevailing sense that a right faith is a happy one. A lot of today’s bestselling Christian pastors/authors have founded their churches on the idea that God wants you to be happy. But is that the faith that has been handed down to us by Christian tradition? Or is it something else? In an age in which the average person is a functional materialist (only believes in what they can see), have we ceased to believe that we can find fulfillment by following the plans of a transcendent being? Is the shallow feeling of happiness so enviable in our age because it’s the closest thing our culture can get to a sense of spiritual fulfillment?

I don’t know. Clearly those pointed questions say how I feel, but rather than circle back around to conversations about secularism, I want to investigate a bigger problem with the Cult of Happiness: it’s built on straw. Life stinks sometimes. People get sick. Your friends die. You step in a puddle and get wet socks. Life just ain’t always great. Rather than try to pretend we can get through it without being sad, why not just acknowledge unhappy feelings and grow in spite of them? Not only do we see that repeatedly in Scripture (see the Psalms and Jesus for some prime examples), but we see that in the writings of one of the greatest saints of all times: Gregory of Nazianzus.

Those of you that have followed me for a while may remember my previous entries on Gregory of Nazianzus. His poetry is just magnetic to me. Beyond it’s beauty and theological content, he’s not afraid to express himself. Gregory is downright miserable at times. Translator Peter Gilbert goes so far as to suggest he might be diagnosed as clinically depressed if he were alive today (On God and Man, 2). This is the faith of one of the saints that helped us understand the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and it wasn’t a particularly happy one.

Just look at this heartrending selection from On Human Nature:

…I keep an unchanging bent, while we rush
upon the sword in suicidal madness, like the swine.
What’s in fact the good of life? God’s light? But then
hateful and jealous darkness keeps me from it.
Nothing’s of any use to me. And what is there of no use to the wicked?
If only they were equally endowed,with troubles especially!
I lie helpless. Divine terror has bowed me…

93-99

YIKES!

The full poem is long, so I’ll give a little context to that excerpt: the poem opens with Gregory racked with anxiety, asking himself the big question: who am I (line 25). On one hand, Christ died to mingle his essence with the divine and lead him on towards holiness. He knows that! But on the other hand, he doesn’t feel particularly blessed. He describes himself as “a nothing… pommeled down by ills like a thing compacted” (line 43). In old age, his body is betraying him. It’s an “enemy that never lets up warring” (59-60), and he feels like he’s “carrying a corpse… locked in the hateful chains of life”(65). Where is this joy that was promised? Will it come? Was there a point to any of this?

Those of us hoping for a happy ending don’t exactly get one. He concludes his quest: “now’s a fog, but afterwards the Word, and you’ll know all, whether by seeing God or eaten up by fire… I headed home, laughing at my self-estrangement… heart in anguish smoldering,” (127-128, 130-133). This is not a happy man, but it’s still a faithful man. He ends this poem specifically because he knows he needs to trust God, even in his misery:

Stop. Everything is secondary to God. Give in to reason.
He did not create me in vain. I am turning
my back upon this song.

123-126

God didn’t create him for nothing. He moves forward in hope, even if he doesn’t feel particularly happy in the given moment.

This poetry is grim, and yet, I find it strangely compelling. It’s honest. I’ve felt these feelings. I’d go so far as to say that existential crises, self doubt, and unfathomable pain are near-universal experiences in this life. When I think about the preachers that are chasing happiness, I can’t even fathom them validating these kinds of emotions as legitimate. “God doesn’t want that for you! Seek joy!” But that advice denies the pain that we all know is real. Anyone who has lived knows that it’s painful sometimes. A saintly faith isn’t one that ignores the deep pains of the world. It’s one that sees the pain and weeps without giving up faith in God. Gregory knew pain. The psalmists felt pain. Jesus felt pain. The faith that’s been passed down all these thousands of years is a hard one sometimes. That’s ok. It’s part of the journey. To quote Rainer Rilke,

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

We seek fulfillment in our eternal God, not a dopamine rush that might get us through another work week. When things are bad, it’s okay to be sad. It’s not a lack of faith; it’s honesty. We have to remember that God didn’t create us in vain and keep trudging on our way, trusting that in the end, God knows what he’s doing.

Metaphysical Wonder: Plato and Patristics

The more I learn about Plato, the more I realize that patristic theologians relied heavily on his work to talk about God. I’m reading through Confessions right now, and it’s absolutely littered with echoes and quotations from Plotinus, a prominent Platonist philosopher. For example, here’s his classic definition of sin (the decision to act for yourself, rather than in accordance with God’s will) side by side with Plotinus’s definition:

I directed my mind to understand what I was being told, namely that the free choice of the will is the reason why we do wrong and suffer your just judgement.

Augustine, The Confessions, p. 113, Trans. Chadwick

What is it, then, which has made the souls forget their father, God, and be ignorant of them- selves and him, even though they are parts which come from his higher world and altogether belong to it? The beginning of evil for them was audacity and coming to birth and the first otherness and the wishing to belong to themselves.

Plotinus, Enneads, 5.1.1

Obviously not a one-to-one copy, but Auggie’s understanding is incredibly compatible with the leading Platonist voice. If you were a Christian, you’d be able to use Platonic logic to back up your points without too much trouble. Similarly, if you were a Platonist that wasn’t a Christian, you’d have some common ground with the Christian tradition if you were looking to convert.

Here’s another example. In this passage, Augustine is trying to describe how he thought about God interacting with creation.

I visualized you, Lord, surrounding [creation] on all sides and permeating it, but infinite in all directions, as if there were a sea everywhere and stretching through immense distances, a single sea which had within it a large but finite sponge; and the sponge was in every part filled from the immense sea. This is the kind of way in which I supposed your finite creation to be full of you, infinite as you are, and said: ‘Here is God and see what God has created. God is good and is most mightily and incomparably superior to these things.

Confessions, p. 115, Trans. Chadwick

The universe lies in soul which bears it up, and nothing is without a share of soul. It is as if a net immersed in the waters was alive, but unable to make its own that in which it is. The sea is already spread out and the net spreads with it, as far as it can; for no one of its parts can be anywhere else than where it lies. And soul’s nature is so great, just because it has no size, as to contain the whole of body in one and the same grasp; wherever body extends, there soul is. If body did not exist, it would make no difference to soul as regards size; for it is what it is.

Plotinus, Enneads 4.3.9.38

Whether we’re sponges or a net, there’s a massive entity in each example (God/soul) that exists as the water that extends in all directions and contains us. When Augustine wanted to talk about God, he used Platonic ideas that had been spread around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years to get the job done.

It’s beyond obvious that these aren’t complete rip-offs. Augustine didn’t pop open Plotinus and start copying bits word for word. Nor are all Platonic ideas are even compatible with Christianity. The guy believed in reincarnation, for crying out loud. To be Christian, you had to admit that Plato got some of it wrong. But clearly Plato and his gang were often seen as people that got most of it right; they just needed a bit of tweaking to fully get there. Augustine credits the Platonists with giving him the logic that prepared him for the Gospel:

You brought under my eye some books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. There I read, not of course in these words, but with entirely the same sense and supported by numerous and varied reasons, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him nothing was made.’

The Confessions, p. 121, Trans. Chadwick

In other words, thank God for Plato’s books, which prepared me for the Bible.

Before going too much further, I do feel obligated to discuss the possibility that patrstic authors like Augustine were too influenced by philosophers like Plato and weren’t really looking at the Bible on it’s own merits. Totally untrue. Patristic sources quote the Bible constantly. Confessions is littered with Bible quotes. These were people that swam in the Scriptures; the assumptions they approached reality with were just very different than our own.

Plato’s work gave early saints the metaphysical concepts and language they needed to talk about God. Platonism had it’s own version of the trinity (the One, the spirit, and the soul). It explained how when we do good, we participate in God’s good actions, rather than act independently of our own ability. It gave the Eastern churches the framework for the doctrines of theosis (becoming like God through constant participation in his actions) and apocatastasis (all things eventually returning to God, really only common in Eastern Orthodoxy). Even the ways that classical Christian orthodoxy frames God as the timeless, spaceless, source of all being are built partially on the assumptions that Plato built. That philosopher gave ideas and language to Christian theologians that were desperately trying to find words to describe their God. In the words of Anglican theologian Dean Inge, “Platonism is part of the vital structure of Christianity, with which no other philosophy, I venture to say, can work without friction.” More aggressively, he wrote that there is an “utter impossibility of excising Platonism from Christianity without tearing Christianity to pieces,” (History of Western Philosophy, 285).

Maybe Paul’s disciplemaking trip to Athens in Acts 17 served a greater purpose than we knew! Maybe spreading the Gospel to Greek minds was God’s way of preparing the ancient Church for the metaphysical work ahead. Ok, technically Plato was known by academics throughout the Mediterranean region, and Plotinus (an Egyptian) specifically wasn’t even born until over a hundred years after Paul’s death. The quotes from above aren’t direct results of Paul’s venture to Athens, but I still think Acts 17 is a brilliant symbol to represent the early Church’s theological growth. The Gospel made it’s way to Greece and was spoken to and by a new people, gaining new expression in the process.

Obviously, the average person today doesn’t know a lot about Plato. I wonder if that’s why so many classical ideas about God’s nature are under attack. It’s fairly common (at least, in my circles) to hear someone say that God is subject to change (not timeless), that God is capable of making mistakes (not good), and that God chooses to let us make whatever choices we want to make without interfering (no participation). If we’re reading the Scriptures with today’s prevailing philosophies in mind (probably some brand of rationalism and materialism), God might seem remarkably human. He bargains with a merciful Abraham about the minimum number of righteous people left in Sodom and Gomorrah before he’ll destroy it (Gen 18). He regrets making humanity (Gen 6:6). He changes his mind about disasters that he’ll send (Amos 7). You get the idea. God is personified relatively often, and those personifications are commonly read by modern thinkers in unflattering, very mortal ways. In the patristic era, it was common for theologians to say, “Well, those stories are just symbols to communicate God’s immense, unfathomable ways to a limited, sinful, mortal people,” but that’s not a common response that I hear anymore. With the loss of a language to describe the things we can’t see, it’s hard for most modern people to imagine a God beyond our mode of being. If God exists, he must be like us, which leaves us why he’s worth worshiping at all.

We need a cure for our loss of metaphysical wonder. I don’t know that everyone ought to go read Plato. There’s a lot of stuff in there that the Church Fathers rejected in long, drawn-out, messy theology battles. We don’t need to start those up again! But we do owe it to ourselves to listen to Christian voices that had a common philosophical vision so different from ours. Their writings have gifts that we won’t find anywhere else, and they point us to a God that’s so delightfully other from our cultural imagination that we can’t help but stand back in awe.

Aquinas’s Prayer before Study

I’ll admit that sometimes my studying can feel detached from my devotional life (probably because I’m usually tempted to skip prayer to get to reading, which is never a good thing), but this week, I ran across a delightful resource to help with that. I started a new class (The Major Works of Augustine) and the professor read this prayer before we started:

Creator of all things,
true source of light and wisdom,
lofty origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of your brilliance
penetrate the darkness of my understanding
and take from me the double darkness
into which I was born:
an obscurity of both sin and ignorance.

Give me a sharp sense of understanding,
a retentive memory,
and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.
Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations,
and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.

Instruct my beginning
direct my progress,
and set your seal upon the finished work.

Through Christ our Lord,
Amen.

-Thomas Aquinas

There’s different versions of this prayer posted all over the internet, so if there’s bits in this one that you don’t like, feel free to shop around. I just thought it was a lovely way of weaving two strands together that are so often pulled apart: study and devotion.

What We Fight is So Tiny: Trust and Rainer Rilke

“God has a plan for all of us.”

That’s a truth that exists in my brain that occasionally gets dredged up when I’m talking about theology, but I don’t think I really know it in my heart. Not when it matters, anyway. When life gets frustrating, I lose myself to anxiety, stress, and disappointment. God’s plan may be a theory I’m aware of, but it’s not a reality I’m living into. To put it in meme terms:

It’s not all that Christian of me.

I’ve been wondering, “How can I trust more when things are going wrong?” This poem by 19th century Austrian poet Rainer Rilke told me exactly really helped me reframe things:

The Man Watching
Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on 
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book, 
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny! 
What fights with us is so great. 
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm, 
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things, 
and the triumph itself makes us small. 
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us. 
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews 
grew long like metal strings, 
he felt them under his fingers 
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel 
(who often simply declined the fight) 
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand, 
that kneaded him as if to change his shape. 
Winning does not tempt that man. 
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, 
by constantly greater beings.

Gorgeous. One line that especially stands out to me: “When we win, it is with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small.” My worries are so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Christians throughout time have been subject to starvation, torture, and the threat of death, and they trusted God. Here I am, terrified about tiny things. I’m fighting over details, and that fighting makes me small. What would it take to give up my fighting and surrender to something far greater? To willingly be defeated by God and trust that it’s for my benefit?

I also love Rilke’s tone. It is, to quote the poem itself “seriousness and weight and eternity.” In contrast to so many modern preachers that portray the life of faith this carefree and delightful romp, Rainer doesn’t shy away from the challenge of faith. God will demand everything. He is the storm on the horizon. His angels will handle your sinews like strings. God is terrifying. The solution isn’t resisting the storm; it’s giving in.

We won’t be the same after the encounter. Jacob, the patriarch that he’s referencing, walked with a limp after his wrestling match. I doubt he wanted a limp, but he got one. He wrestled with the divine, and he was transformed. Not in the way he expected, mind you, but he trusted that this new self was a better self. So many of the heroes of faith were transformed through events that I can’t imagine them asking for. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son. Noah was asked to watch a civilization-ending flood. Elijah hid while he was hunted by the authorities. Jeremiah the prophet was thrown into a cistern. Even Jesus, the grand revelation of God himself, was crucified. God’s action isn’t all sunshine and roses. It’s scary, but we have to trust that it’s good.

Rainer challenges us to trust with the full knowledge that it won’t end up the way we sinful beings would like. The only victory worth having is our own defeat. I only hope I can stop trying to squeeze out victories over tiny things and start losing the battle that matters.

The Acts of Pilate: Jesus Conquers Hell

I’m doing a little class about the cross at my church, and this week we’re looking at the Christus Victor model of atonement.  It presents Christ’s death on the cross primarily as a victory over evil.  In ancient times, it was usually tied to the ransom theory of atonement (Jesus was given over to Satan/evil as a payment in exchange for humanity), so you can find these great old stories about Jesus going to Hell and wrecking everything to save the saints.

The book we are using for the study (The Sign and the Sacrifice by Rowan Williams) mentioned one such account from the fourth-century apocryphal book The Acts of Pilate (aka the Gospel of Nicodemus). Naturally, I wanted to read it firsthand!  Unfortunately, there’s no accessible copy online.  The best I could find was the version in The Apocryphal New Testament by Montague Rhodes James, published in 1924, which translates everything into Shakespearean English.  There’s thee’s and thou’s and all those other old words that make reading infinitely harder.  I went ahead and paraphrased the translation there so it was actually readable and I thought I’d share it.  This is not a translation!  It’s my attempt to make the James translation readable for a modern audience.  Feel free to check out the original here (at the bottom of p. 117).  I started paraphrasing at Christ’s descent into Hell (about halfway through The Acts of Pilate), and I stopped just shy of the real end of the text (I ended with Jesus leaving Hell, but all of the saints give praise and hallelujahs for a few more paragraphs).  This is based on the Latin A manuscript.

If you don’t know anything about apocryphal books or atonement theories, you might be asking, “Why on Earth would I want to read that” Well, it’s basically a fourth-century fanfiction about Jesus going to Hell after his death on the cross. He fights Hell (yes, Hell is a being in this one) and Satan, and he busts Adam and his friends out and takes them to Heaven. It may not be Scripture, but it’s really cool and well worth your time.

To make sure this isn’t the longest blog post ever, here’s a link:

https://classictheology.org/the-acts-of-pilate-christs-descent-into-hell/

Enjoy!

Sanctify this Work: George Herbert’s The Altar

I ran across the poet-priest George Herbert for the first time this week, much to my delight. I’d heard of John Donne (of Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God fame), but I had no idea that there was a whole group of 17th century English poets that had an interest in religious writing! Apparently, they’re called the metaphysical poets. Not all of them cover religious topics like Donne and Herbert, but a hearty chunk of them did. The idea of the poet-priest was popular in that day!

George Herbert was kind of a hotshot in his younger years. He went to school to become a priest, but ended up becoming the public orator at Cambridge, serving in parliament, and personally knowing the king. After the king died, he quietly left the political scene and finally got ordained. He served 2 rural churches and wrote poetry until his death at age 39. His poetry career wasn’t some way he secretly tried to stay in the limelight; he sent his poems to a publisher when he was on his deathbed for them print if they thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.”

I’m astounded at his humility. He mingled with some of the most elite Englishmen of his era! To turn around and take a job as a rural priest where the churches are so small that you’re expected to cover two of them? That’s a massive shift. But he seems to have enjoyed it. He wrote a manual to help country priests, A Priest to the Temple, which speaks of the job in the highest possible terms:

The countrey parson is exceeding exact in his life, being holy, just, prudent, temperate, bold, grave in all his wayes.

George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple, Ch. 3

That doesn’t sound like someone that’s inwardly miserable. It sounds like someone who genuinely believes they’re doing something of the utmost importance. He may have left the world’s seat of power, but to him, the rural pastorate seemed every bit as glorious as what happened in the king’s court.

In any case, today I just wanted to look at his famous poem, The Altar. It’s been running through my head all week, and it’s really been inspiring me to think about work differently (this poem was printed in an era where the letter s often looks a lot like f, so read accordingly):

It’s a gorgeous poem. It’s rare to see linguistic and visual artistry paired so seamlessly. Different disciplines are all too often siloed, robbing us of possibilities like this. The particular line that I keep coming back to is, “sanctify this altar to be thine.” What a bold request. Obviously, it works in the context of the poem to refer to his heart, but since the poem is in the shame of an altar, it works on another level: Herbert is asking God to sanctify his work itself! He gave of himself and his time to create this poem, and now he asks God to bless it.

I don’t know how often I consider my work something to lay at the feet of God. I’m usually caught up in thinking about how many people will like it, or if it will make me look impressive or silly or whatever else. But if I sincerely give something my all and dedicate it to God, wouldn’t that be blessingworthy? Even if the world hates it, I have to imagine he’d enjoy it, and what matters more than that? No wonder George was so humble. He was serving the world, but working for the approval of an audience of one.